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NO. 6 USC (4-1, 2-1) VS. WASHINGTON STATE (1-6, 0-4)

How Bad Could It Be?

October 18, 2008

USC moved up in the rankings with a shutout against Arizona State that belied the Trojans' turnover-plagued performance on offense. Times staff writer Gary Klein looks at some of the key issues and matchups as USC, which has a history of not performing well against lightly regarded foes, plays one of the nation's poorest-performing teams:

Bouncing back

USC's Mark Sanchez is coming off a career-worst performance in which he lost a fumble and had three passes intercepted on consecutive possessions against Arizona State.

The junior quarterback, who says a bone bruise in his left knee had nothing to do with his erratic play, remains the Pacific 10 Conference's passing efficiency leader and is eager to regain the touch that had vaulted him into the Heisman Trophy discussion before last week's meltdown.

Sanchez faces a defense that intercepted four passes last week against Oregon State and is ranked fourth in the conference against the pass.

Washington State's injury woes at quarterback are so bad that a walk-on finished the Oregon State game. Kevin Lopina, who sat out three games after suffering a fractured bone in his back, is the probable starter but is expected to be limited. He has completed 27 of 50 passes for 315 yards and no touchdowns with five interceptions.

Depth charge

Remember all that talk about USC having too many tailbacks?

With Joe McKnight (toe) and Marc Tyler (quadriceps) ailing and Allen Bradford set to have hip surgery, the Trojans are down to three: junior Stafon Johnson, sophomore C.J. Gable and redshirt freshman Broderick Green, each of whom will be facing a defense that gives up 253 yards rushing per game.

"Everybody is always asking, 'How are you going to manage everybody?' " running backs coach Todd McNair said. "I always say, 'You'll see, guys get nicked.' You can never have too many."

Washington State would love to have such a problem.

Dwight Tardy, the top rushing threat for an offense that ranks 111th out of 119 teams nationally in rushing offense, did not play against Oregon State because of leg injuries. If he plays today, he'll be facing the nation's 10th-best rushing defense.

Get a grip

Windy conditions in the Coliseum last week might have contributed to three dropped passes by Trojans receivers.

Cold and rain are elements USC might have to deal with at Martin Stadium. And Washington State's secondary is its strong point. Safety Xavier Hicks intercepted two passes last week.

Washington State receiver Brandon Gibson has been a bright spot for the conference's worst offense. The senior has averaged 5.4 catches per game, second in the Pac-10, and is averaging 12.8 yards a catch. He has a reception in 30 consecutive games.

Gibson, though, could have a tough time against cornerbacks Cary Harris, Josh Pinkard and Kevin Thomas, and safeties Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays, the backbone of the conference's second-best pass defense.

On the line

USC and Washington State have one thing in common, at least for this week: new offensive-line combinations.

USC right tackle Butch Lewis sat out all week because of illness, so Nick Howell will start for the first time. Tyron Smith should play multiple snaps at left tackle if starter Charles Brown switches to the right side to spell Howell.

Washington State has started five offensive-line combinations in seven games.

Flag day

If the Trojans and Cougars continue their penalty-prone ways, trainers for both teams might be busy tending to officials out of breath from blowing whistles or suffering shoulder problems from throwing flags.

USC averages a conference-worst nine penalties a game, Washington State only slightly fewer.

Coach Pete Carroll summoned extra officials to practice this week to help USC try to correct the problem.

Streaking

USC, coming off its 28-0 victory over Arizona State, has not recorded consecutive shutouts since 1971 when the Trojans defeated Rice, 24-0, and Illinois, 28-0.

Washington State has not been shut out since 1984, when Ohio State defeated the Cougars, 44-0. That's a stretch of 280 consecutive games, the nation's second-longest active streak behind Michigan's 294.

By the numbers

*--* USC CATEGORY WSU 36.0 Scoring 15.9 9.4 Points given up 45.1 276.2 Passing offense 176.9 164.6 Rushing offense 98.0 440.8 Total offense 274.4 158.2 Passing defense 184.0 82.8 Rush defense 253.0 241.0 Total defense 436.1 *--*

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gary.klein@latimes.com

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This 'dog won't hunt ... will it?

Yes, Washington State is a 42 1/2 -point underdog against sixth-ranked USC and the Trojans have been suckered into being too comfortable before (recall Oregon State last month and Stanford last season). That said, the hapless Cougars are so down they're nearly underground. What to look for in today's game:

* Bouncing back: USC's Mark Sanchez thought he was battered and bruised and didn't play well last week? Par for the course if you're a Washington State quarterback.

* Depth charge: Again, the Cougars wish they had such "problems." USC is down to three healthy tailbacks.

* Get a grip: Washington State's Brandon Gibson is Mr. Consistency among Pac-10 receivers. The Trojans could learn from him.

* On the line: It turns out these teams have something in common: Both have new personnel on the offensive line.

* Flag day: The game officials better make sure to stretch and warm up. These are the most penalized teams in the Pac-10.

* Streaking: USC, which downed Arizona State, 28-0, last week, hasn't recorded consecutive shutouts since 1971. Now why would that be worth mentioning?

See D7 for details

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